Thursday, October 12, 2006

E-Reader's Not All That, Morgan Webb's Pretty, and George Saunders is a Genius. Exhibit A: "Pastoralia"

Been lax the last couple days on this thing, sorry 'bout 'dat, but I'm getting close to finishing the first (or, more correctly, the quasi-second) draft of the end of my book, so my focus has been on that.

Also, to follow-up on something I posted on not too long ago, some independent third-party reviews are in for that Sony E-Reader gadget I wrote about. (I wondered if it might signal the end of all things printed and bound.) Go here to see the brief write-up of the reviews at GalleyCat, and if you're wanting a more in-depth look, click on GalleyCat's links to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times; they're the ones doing the judging after all.

And, at risk of alienating those few female readers who sometimes frequent this blog, I'd like to direct your attention to a few new photos from FHM magazine of X-Play host Morgan Webb, which also happens to include some interesting factoids about Ms. Webb I didn't know. Did you know she used to be in television commercials as a child? I didn't. Anyway, she's a very talented young woman and I respect her video game expertise.

Finally, I finished a collection of short stories last night called "Pastoralia" by George Saunders. Shawn lent it to me when I visited him in Asheville back in August. He'd described the title story to me many a year ago and it sounded funny to me then, but I never got around to picking it up until he pressed it into my hand. I've been an ignorant snob on the subject of "funny" books, thinking if there was a comedic bent in a book or a story, it was probably on the level of Carl Hiassen or Kinky Friedman or Douglas Adams, but now I think I might be all about the "funny" books (the good ones anyway), because "Pastoralia" was probably the funniest thing I've ever read. I read the title story aloud to Peggy and, usually, the dulcet tones of my voice have a sleep-inducing quality for her, forcing her into a fitful sleep filled with dreams of low-voiced mumbling giants, but "Pastoralia" kept her up and when she felt herself going to sleep she told me to stop reading so I could read the rest the following night. There was much laughter.

The title-story, "Pastoralia", concerns an unnamed man who works in a kind of living museum/theme park. He lives in a cave and pretends to be a caveman. He's pretty good at his job. He has to be because he can't afford to get fired. His wife and small son (with whom he communicates by fax) aren't doing so well. She's struggling with bills marked "Past-Due" and the son has some peculiar disease that limits his mobility and the doctors don't know how to treat him. So his family needs him to keep working this demeaning job that requires him to eat roast goat everyday, pretend to pick insects out of the air and eat them, and not talk. Working with him is a 50-ish woman who pretends to be a cavewoman. Her name is Janet and, unlike our hero, she isn't very good at her job. In keeping with the verisimilitude of their caveman tableau, when they aren't in their personal "Separate Areas", they are allowed only to grunt and shriek and be incomprehensible and wild in case a tourist should stop by. They are expressly prohibited from speaking English as it would destroy the "realism" of the experience. But Janet speaks in white-trash-accented English whenever she likes, smokes, eats mints, and does crosswords. She can get awat with this because the opening in their cave through which visitors to the park "poke their head[s] in" hasn't had a visitor in two weeks. And even though no one's viewing their simulacrum of prehistoric life, either management or tourist, the main character and Janet are still required to keep up the act at all times. And despite her bad behavior (and some of the comedy comes from the many ways she finds to undermine that "realism"), he never rats on her. On the Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Forms he's required to fax into management each day, Janet always gets high marks, and this unerring consistency on the DPPEFs starts to get our hero in trouble with the higher-ups.

I don't want to give much more away than the premise, because I think this is one you all would like to read, but I laughed hardest at the character of Nordstrom, the boss with an unusual speaking and writing style (they are the same and they are weird), and Janet's ne'er-do-well son, Bradley, who, fresh out of rehab worries that he's going to revert to his old ways as an "Inadvertant Substance Misuser". He got the biggest laughs.

"Sea Oak" is balls-out funny and the others are just perfect in a sad, satirical way. "The End of FIRPO in the World" wasn't terribly satirical, just kind of heart-breaking. After having read these stories I see very well now why the MacArthur Foundation gave Saunders one of their "Genius Grants" this past month. $100,000 every year for five years indeed. Well-deserved.

Most of Saunders' characters are sad sacks who've been unlucky in circumstance and temperament. Though their lives are pretty bad, they could be improved if only the one in charge of improving it weren't the person living it. They are prisoners of their own personalities. "Pastoralia" also deals in sharp political commentary. Though it's never explicitly stated, one is led to believe many of these stories are set in a future where the social safety net has been entirely removed, 90% of jobs are service-industry jobs of various levels of humiliation, and, judging by how dumb many of the characters are, the public education system has been entirely dismantled for some time. Much of the dialogue in this is hilarious but some of the humor comes out of the Jerry Springer-style stupidity of some of the characters (I'm thinking specifically of the sisters in "Sea Oak", Min and Jade). I would say that Saunders' writing must have influenced Mike Judge when he wrote the screenplay for "Idiocracy", a story about a distant future when all humans are dumber than rocks. To me, "Idiocracy" seems like a wayward off-shoot of Saunders' hilariously dystopian universe.

Anyway, this was an excellent collection of stories and Saunders is a real find. I've got to get my hands on his other collection of stories, "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline", as soon as possible. All right. Enough for today. More tomorrow?


harwell said...

So, I'm looking at these pictures of Morgan Webb - who's certainly attractive and I'm pretty sure an object of Heath's affectionerection - and then I notice the comments posted below the photos. The third comment reads like this: "Average face, nice body. I’d pee in her butt."

And now I don't feel like looking at these pictures anymore...

Glad you liked George Saunders. Have yet to meet anyone who's read him that doesn't. As luck would have it, I just two days ago came into posession of his newest collection "In Persuasion Nation," and it's resting on the bedstand waiting for my eyes. Also heard a rumor that he's written a script/scripts for one/several of his stories so hopefully we'll have some George Saunders movies in the near future. "Sea Oak" is probably my favorite of his but there's a story in "Civil Warl Land" that's set in a typical office environment that's a real hoot.

Anyway, nice take on his work. Now give me my book back.

blankfist said...
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blankfist said...

Me likey some Morgan Webb... Mmmmm... Though, the show XPlay could stand to have some better reviews without all the silly skits and parodies thrown in so often it seems as if the producers not only refuse to demonstrate a modest amount of discriminately planned comedy, but they also have a fondness of annoying their audience. With a running time of half an hour, you'd think they'd be able to dive into more than five reviews. Is the reservoir of games that shallow or do they tape a new show every day of the week and need to stretch it out a bit? I don't know, because I personally can't stomach that show more than once a week, if that, now that they've gone from a serious review show to a 'Slappy Hour Fun Time Bang-Bang Extravaganza with Special Sauce' show. Even if Morgan is hot, I can't do it.

But, you like Adam Sessler, don't you, silly gay Crane. I saw what you posted on his myspace page: "Average face, nice body. I'd pee in his butt." That's gay, dude.

Anonymous said...

More tomorrow? What more?

Craig Moorhead said...

What saves Pastoralia from becoming just another funny book (aside from all the terribly great writing) is "The End of FIRPO in the World". At that point, you're definitely not reading Douglas Adams (who still has his charms).